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ARGENTINA: The Power of Informal Garbage Collectors

Maricel Drazer* - Tierramérica

BUENOS AIRES, Feb 4 2006 (IPS) - “Cartoneros” – informal garbage collectors – were the pioneers in recycling waste in the Argentine capital, an activity that helped them escape indigence. Now they are an essential piece towards meeting the ambitious goal of “zero garbage” in the city by 2020.

Enacted earlier this month, the Zero Garbage Law sets quotas for the government and the three million residents of Buenos Aires to reduce the production of waste and to promote separating out different materials and recycling.

Under the law’s timeframe, in 14 years recyclable materials will no longer end up in landfills, which environmentalists see as a source of contamination and a symbol of a model that squanders natural resources – because the materials cannot be recovered once they are buried.

The cartoneros, the only ones who currently work to recycle waste in Buenos Aires, are the core of that objective. Because of their efforts around 10 percent of all recyclable waste generated in the city is reused.

According to the latest estimates, 4,500 tonnes of garbage are produced in Buenos Aires each day.

A leader in this endeavour is El Ceibo cooperative, named after Argentina’s national flower. The 40 families in the cooperative have been collecting waste in the residential Buenos Aires neighborhood of Palermo for the past six years.

“We explain to the residents how they should separate their garbage. And we decide with them when they want us to come by and pick it up,” El Ceibo member Alfredo Ojeda, 21, told Tierramérica.

The group carries out its work “door to door”: they systematically collect the recyclable material from the resident, and take it to a collection centre, where the different materials are selected and sold. They recover five tonnes of reusable material each week between paper, cardboard, glass and plastic.

The members perform different functions: promoters, collectors, selectors. Their wages – ranging from 130 to 300 dollars a month – depend on what their duties are in the process. Although these are still considered low wages, it allows them to avoid the indigent situation they faced before.

“We didn’t have anything,” El Ceibo founder and coordinator Cristina Lescano said in a Tierramérica interview. When the cooperative began operating six years ago it was a couple dozen families who were going through the rubbish in order to subsist.

“I will never forget when I went out to ‘cirujear’ for the first time: I was completely covered up, because I was ashamed,” she said.

In 2001, amidst the country’s worst economic crisis, the group established the cooperative.

“It is a cultural change, but we are achieving it. Because, for example, if a resident gives you 10 bottles, those bottles don’t belong to you, they belong to the cooperative. And sometimes that’s hard to understand,” said Lecano.

Minors don’t take part in the work, she added, because “one shouldn’t take the kids out on the street.” And the cooperative only works during the day, not at night like most other cartoneros.

The members wear blue vests to identify them as part of the cooperative. “It’s better because this way the residents recognise us and don’t distrust us. Otherwise, before, they wouldn’t open the door,” said the young collector Ojeda.

According to official estimates, around 7,000 cartoneros work in Buenos Aires. Although about 9,000 people are registered as cartoneros, it is believed that with the country’s economic recovery many have left the activity for other work.

The new law covers “the promotion of the participation of cooperatives and non-governmental organisations in the collection and recycling of waste.” It is hoped that the legislation, which fills the legal void on this issue, will facilitate regulations and controls for the sector.

“We are going to help formalise this work,” Marcelo Vensentini, undersecretary of environment for the city government, told Tierramérica, noting that regulation is essential to protect the right of the cartoneros to decent, well-paid work.

“There are mafias that are very difficult to control. They are middlemen who buy the material from the cartoneros at a miserable price, they store it in clandestine locations, and later sell it,” says Juan Manuel Velasco, president of the ecology commission of the Legislative Congress and author, along with Greenpeace, of the Zero Garbage Law.

The members of the cooperative know their share of discrimination, abusive practices and injustices. But they know perseverance better.

“People ask us if we find a job will we leave this. But we say no, because this is a job, and it’s decent,” said Lescano.

(*Maricel Drazer is an IPS contributor. Originally published Jan. 28 by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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